The Merchant of Venice | Bell ShakespeareLeft – Felicity McKay, Jessica Tovey and Shiv Palekar. Cover – Mitchell Butel. Photos – Prudence Upton

Bell Shakespeare's latest production of The Merchant of Venice is a thought provoking take on one of Shakespeare's most controversial comedies. With a tight ensemble, it's a slick, colourful production that offers audiences some thoroughly engrossing moments of theatre.

The Merchant of Venice opens with a young Venetian gentlemen, Bassiano (played with vigour and vim by Damien Strouthos), borrowing money from friend and businessman, Antonio, to woo his true love; a wealthy Venetian heiress, Portia. With Antonio's fleets all at sea he's flat broke, so he approaches known Jewish money lender Shylock for the cashola. An odd choice, given his past anti-Semitic treatment and abuse of said money lender. Shylock agrees, though, to the loan on the kicky terms that if it's not settled within the agreed time he gets to shave a goodly pound of flesh off Antonio as payment. And the hi-jinks ensue. Shakespeare, what a kidder. Yearning young love, injustice, religion, passion, and comical deception. The Merchant of Venice has it all. It really is a GREAT tale.

Bell Shakespeare's production, under the masterful direction of Anne-Louise Sarks, doesn't pull any punches. The actors are on stage and in view the whole time, the action moves continuously and the characters are both likeable and detestable. There can be a trap with this work to end up in the telling with a leaning towards either the Jews or the Christians – but the true credit of this production is that the actions of both are incredibly ugly. Mitchell Butel's performance as Shylock is nuanced and on point. He suffers the abuse and discrimination with a considered approach, and at the core of the hardened businessman you see a loving father who struggles with the desire to rage. When he reaches his tipping point, as vile as his actions are, there is a macabre understanding of why. The courtroom scene in this production is riveting. It was the highpoint of the evening. It left the audience grappling with the desire for Antonio to not lose his life, while also understanding Shylock's resolve. It's was pure, great theatre.

Other shout outs must go to the women in this production, Jessica Tovey as Portia, Catherine Davies as Nerissa and Felicity McKay as Jessica, who were incredibly strong in their respective roles. Jessica's final moments in the play were so on point it was heartbreaking. She was crying out for humanity and we needed her to do it.

The sparse, effective set and costume design by Michael Hankin, lighting by Paul Jackson and sound by Max Lyandvert sit perfectly below and around the performance. Not overstated, they're altogether complimentary. It's engaging, it's dynamic and all the elements came together so beautifully in the scene where Shylock realises Jessica has left. It was superb.

Running until the 30th of July at the Arts Centre, this latest production by Bell Shakespeare is a powerful one. It may be touted as a Rom-Com, but it raises great questions and it gets people talking. Isn't that what our stages should be doing?

Bell Shakespeare presents
The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare

Director Anne-Louise Sarks

Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 19 – 30 July, 2017

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